Dáil Éireann has passed emergency legislation aimed at tackling the outbreak of Covid-19. The Bill entitled the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 will now proceed to the Seanad before it is enacted. This Bill as proposed includes a ‘sunset’ clause which will provide a time period that the provisions of the legislation will remain in effect. The legislation is intended as a temporary measure to address the impact of the coronavirus.

The Bill currently proposes amendments to the Health Act 1947 and the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The amendments to the Health Act 1947 focus on detention, isolation and the minimisation of the risk of infection of Covid-19. The amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 address the emergency payments made to persons who have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005

The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 is the principle piece of legislation which addresses payments made by the department of social protection including illness benefit. Part 2 of the proposed Bill concerns payments to persons who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or persons who are a “probable source of infection”.

The Bill does not propose to remove the current requirement that a person who under an ordinary set of circumstances are required to wait 6 days before applying for illness benefit. The Bill inserts a temporary measure to address those specifically affected by the coronavirus. Under the current provisions of the Bill those affected by the coronavirus are immediately entitled to illness benefit and can apply on day 1 of their illness.

There is an enhanced rate of illness benefit available to persons who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or those who have been directed to self-isolate. This rate of illness benefit is paid at an enhanced rate of € 350.00 per week.

Employed & Self-Employed: Department of Social Protection Payments

The Department of Social Protection currently allows for the emergency payment of € 350.00 per week for both employed and self-employed persons whose jobs have been affected by the coronavirus. A person who has lost employment will receive the payment of € 350.00 for twelve-weeks. A person is required to apply for job seekers benefit or job seekers allowance during this twelve-week period.

Job seekers benefit (self-employed) was introduced on 1st November 2019 under the Social Welfare Act 2019. Job seekers benefit is based on a person’s PRSI payments whereas job seekers allowance is means tested. In circumstances where a person does not have enough PRSI contributions, they may apply for job seekers allowance.

Amendments to The Health Act 1947

The proposed Bill includes amendments to the Health Act 1947 which are as follows:

  • The Bill proposes restrictions imposed upon travel to or from the State and restrictions on travelling within geographical locations
  • The Minister for Health may make regulations requiring persons to remain in their homes should it be considered necessary
  • The Minister may also make regulations prohibiting events and classes should it reasonably be considered that this would pose a risk of infection. The Minister may put in place safeguards to minimise or slow the risk of infection. Events have been given a wide definition in the Bill and include a gathering of persons, whether it is for work, sport, recreation or entertainment purposes amongst others.
  • The minister may also make regulations putting safeguards in place for schools, creches and other childcare facilities in order to “prevent, minimise, limit or slow the risk of infection”.

The Bill states that in exercising any of the above powers, the Minister must have regard to the fact that there is a national emergency “of such character that there is an immediate and manifest risk to human life and public health”. The Bill makes it an offence to contravene any of the regulations where a penal provision is provided for. A member of the Garda Síochána may direct a person who contravenes a penal regulation to take such steps as are necessary to comply with the regulation. A member of An Garda Síochána may also carry out an arrest of any person who does not comply with a penal provision of the regulations where “the member has reasonable cause for believing” such a person is “committing or has committed an offence”.

Powers conferred upon medical officers

As the Bill currently stands, the Minister’s regulations may be enforced by medical officers of the health, persons appointed by the Health Service Executive, “an authorised officer”, an officer of the customs or an officer of the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Bill includes provisions relating to the “detention and isolation of persons in certain circumstances”. In situations where a medical officer of the health believes in good faith that a person is a “potential source of infection” and a “potential risk to public health” then the medical officer may in writing order the detention or isolation of such a person in a hospital or other place as specified in the order until such time as “the medical officer certifies that the person’s detention is no longer required”.

Potential Source of Infection has been defined in the proposed Bill as persons who have been in recent contact with a person who a medical officer believes to be a probable source of infection or suffering from Covid-19. The definition also includes persons who have travelled from a place outside the state which the medical officer of health believes to have a significant number of cases of persons infected with Covid-19.

The medical officer must have regard to the need to act expeditiously, the resources of the health service available, the policies and objectives of the Government and the fact that Covid-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. Any order made detaining and isolating any person must be reviewed no later than 14 days from the time the person has been detained. Any person so detained may request a review of the order by a medical officer other than the medical officer who made the order. The Bill will now proceed to Seanad Éireann before it can be passed into legislation.

Anyone wishing to read the Health (Preservation and Protection and Other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 may do so by visiting www.oireachtas.ie. You may also wish to access information on the payments currently provided for persons impacted by the coronavirus by visiting the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection’s website at www.gov.ie which provides information on the Covid-19 pandemic payment  and the illness benefit that is currently available.